Increasingly, business networking has become an important route to market for many small and medium businesses operating particularly in the business-to-business sector. As the number of small businesses has grown significantly in the UK, the number of networking opportunities has also risen strongly. Yet, despite the many stories of success through networking, many business owners invest significant amounts of time and energy into attending networking events without generating a significant return from their effort.
The principles of networking suggest that they key strategy is to build strong relationships with other business owners and, by supporting them, receiving reciprocal support.
The challenge of business networking
The challenge with this approach is that businesses networking with each other are often potential prospects for each other in a business-to-business context but are not, at the time of the networking event, actually respective customers.
The challenge then is to create the right reaction in those that we network with for the long-term benefit of our business and understand their business well enough to be able to provide long-term support to them too.
Businesses typically make a number of critical mistakes when networking. Here are the top 5 mistakes that I’ve witnessed (and made!) over many years of networking for the xTEN Club business.
- Pitching to sell
Businesses spend significant amounts of time and effort ensuring that the sales pitch is clear, honed, and unambiguous. Our aim is that our sales pitch is compelling and interesting to that prospect – so that prospects buy. The networking mistake that people make is to use the same pitch when networking. You’re not selling to your network, you’re teaching your network how to sell for you. So don’t pitch your product, pitch your pitch.
- Lack of clarity about your target market
There’s a temptation to believe that all our products and services apply to all customers. They don’t. Just as in every other aspect of selling, we need to truly understand who benefits the most from our products and services and be able to describe them clearly and succinctly to others. When networking what we’re seeking to do is to help our networking contact to recognise potential prospects for us from within their contacts. The more refined you can be, the more likely they are to think of somebody specific. Our experience is that when a specific person comes to mind the referral follows. Our advice is to seek to understand who your networking contact is regularly engaged with, either as their customers, socially or in other networking groups, and to chat about the aspects of those people which most closely match your own target market, explaining why what you do (and the products that you have) serves those people well. Your aim is to encourage them to talk about you at the next available opportunity with one or two individuals.
- Why your knowledge, skills and experience matter
People often talk about having a unique selling proposition but, in reality, most products and services are not dramatically dissimilar, not genuinely unique, compared to others in the market. When you are networking it’s important to highlight why a customer should choose you over any of the numerous competitors that may exist for your service. In general, we believe that comes from who you are and the approach that you take rather than from the product or service itself.Your knowledge, skills and experience, your individual journey to developing the products and services that you now operate is unique to you. Nobody else will have had your particular education, the career and experience that you’ve had in business or the skills that you’ve developed to deliver the products that you now sell. Create a story that highlights those strengths enables your particular approach to be remembered and retold more easily.
- It’s not about facts
Facts about your product and service are important in that they reinforce the credibility that you have, but in general raw facts are not remembered, stories are. When networking I often hear people talking about the amount of money that this product will make or save, or the return on investment that can be expected, and whilst these are important with a prospect who needs to understand what they will specifically get if they buy, with your network they don’t have relevance at that moment. What does have relevance is a story that they can relate to and empathise with, that tells others about how their business or personal life has improved by working with you.
- The market doesn’t do what you do in the way that you do it, and that’s important
Related to the last point, we know that our particular approach, knowledge, skills and experience stand us out from the crowds but it’s important to highlight what the market does in order to position your business within the marketplace. It allows you to tell a further story that reinforces how memorable your networking will be. For example, your target market may be different, or the subtleties of a service may differ from competitors. Those differences help people make the right choice, your target market choose you, and so you match their needs better and get better results for them. Your aim should be to help the right people to make the right choice, You.
Remember, your network is not your market.
When you’re networking you’re not selling, you’re teaching; you’re teaching your network how to sell for you, what makes you stand out, who is best-suited for your products and services. Ideally, you are helping them to identify one or two people for whom a referral would be sensible. At the same time, when you network you should be seeking similar information from your network, asking them specific questions that elicit this information will encourage them to ask you the same.
You get out of your network what you put in only when you are putting in the right things for your network – referrals and business – from the people that you know and want to help.